What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?


Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org we are hosting an ongoing discussion by philosophers of religion about philosophy of religion. Our first blog series asked simply, “What is philosophy of religion?”; and our second series inquired, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” Our third discussion focuses on the values and norms that define excellence in our field. What qualities or characteristics make a work in philosophy of religion worthy of being read, re-read, and criticized by fellow philosophers of religion? What, in fact, do we most admire in the work of others, and what ought we to most admire? Is rigorous argumentation the be-all and end-all of philosophy of religion, or are other values also important, such as multidisciplinarity, adequacy to the diversity of living religions, sensitivity to the existential dimension of religion, etc.?

The norms and values that define excellence in an inquiry not only specify the conditions for successful, progressive inquiry, but also implicitly define the goals of the inquiry itself. Is the purpose of philosophy of religion to explain religious phenomena, to criticize and/or defend religious ideas through argumentation, to gain wisdom about the good life through the study of human religions, or something else? Through an analysis of philosophers’ answers to our question about norms and values, we hope to surface some of the diverse views of the goal of philosophy of religion that are prevalent in the field. Once our analysis of the discussion is complete, we’ll present our findings on this website.

In the meantime, we invite you to read the blog entries and learn from experts who work in the field about the values and norms that define philosophy of religion.

David Rohr is a PhD candidate at Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies, and editor of PhilosophyOfReligion.org; Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Tadd Ruetenik on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Tadd Ruetenik is Professor of Philosophy at St. Ambrose University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I find that William James’ definition of philosophy is a good start in defining an excellent philosophy of religion. In Pragmatism, he says that philosophy is “our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos” (1). This might at first seem too common and vague, amounting to little more than a fire-side chat model of philosophy. We can imagine people rambling some thought and then ending with “and that’s just my philosophy,” to the approving nods of those who are merely waiting their own turn to express theirs. But this view is largely conditioned by an individualistic understanding of James, itself conditioned by an individualistic culture in which beliefs are thought of as the kinds of things that should be insulated from any critical attention.

We must note that James’ definition is based on the assumption that other human beings are indeed part of the cosmoi that pushes and presses. So while our philosophy is indeed our individual expression, this expression is conditioned by the individual expressions of others. And this is just as much the case when we think of a philosophy of religion. In this sense, philosophy of religion is our individual way of feeling the push and pressure of the cosmos, subjected to a concurrent push and pressure of other individuals in the cosmos. As strange as it might sound, for James, it is not the case that philosophy of religion is a subset of philosophy, but rather that philosophy is a subset of philosophy of religion. For James, experience proceeds by subtraction. We experience everything together, in all its relations, and then separate things based on selective interest. The religious questions for him are the largest questions, the everything questions.

This largest of questions was addressed by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, who talked about sorge, a German word often translated unhelpfully as “solicitude,” which, perhaps even more unhelpfully, is then also rendered as “anxious care.” But one doesn’t need to be fretting to be religious. The idea is that the human being’s fundamental relation to the world is one in which, to put it both abstractly and precisely, things matter.

I don’t know how helpful this will be, but I offer that the best way to render this fundamental idea is to say that, in the largest sense, a philosophy of religion is a consideration of to what extent the universe gives a shit. Perhaps the universe gives a shit about itself, or gives a shit about certain beings within itself, or gives a shit about certain subclass of these beings called human, or perhaps gives a shit only about a subclass within that of human beings. The scope of this theory can be both large enough and limited enough to be useful. It can suggest that, through a theory of karmic involvement, the universe gives a shit about justice. Or it can postulate that there exists a personal God who gives a shit about justice in our world. Or it can postulate that there exists a God who so gave a shit about the world that he sent His only Son so that … .

What this theory excludes from being religious is an understanding of the cosmos according to which the cosmos simply does not give a shit. It is not clear if it is possible for a philosopher even to maintain such a theory, since to maintain something is to give a shit whether it is true. I suppose they could respond to all such criticism by saying, “well, that’s just my philosophy.”

But to return to James, we see a good formulation of a philosophy of religion coming from his Varieties of Religious Experience:

The warring gods and formulas of the various religions do indeed cancel each other, but there is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet. It consists of two parts:

1. An uneasiness; and
2. Its solution.
1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.
2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers. (551-552)

There are parts of this definition that need to be understood with nuance. In some Native American religions the idea that we are naturally wrong need not be understood as implying a dramatic Fall that requires a heroic savior, but rather only a disequilibrium that requires an adjustment. In that case, the wrongness can be saved by an appropriate ritual. It is difficult, however, for me to imagine a religious universe that did not have this salvific aspect, which is to say, did not have any give-a-shitedness (gebensheissenheit?) built into it. I can imagine a universe in which our descriptions can be marked as true or otherwise. But in this case it would be difficult to see why we would give a shit if the description were true. James’ reference to higher powers might seem gratuitous, since our own questioning of the cosmos could show that, in fact, there exists one thing that gives a shit. But we have to understand that, for James — the son of the religious socialist Henry James the Elder — the cosmos is a dynamic and human place. In such a world the higher power is the sense of connection with others, the sense that, despite differences in individual philosophies, there is a natural desire to leave warring and disunity for peace and unity, whether permanent or transitory in realization. An excellent philosophy of religion is one that gives enough of a shit to account for both the wrongness and the propriety of the universe, and the relations among those existing in it.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. (New York: The Modern Library) 1994.
James, William. Pragmatism. (New York: Dover Publications) 1995.

Kenneth Seeskin on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Kenneth Seeskin is the Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Let me start by saying that like most other areas of philosophy, philosophy of religion has become a specialized discipline whose practitioners typically evaluate the cogency of free-standing arguments often by reconstructing them in tight, logical form. For this type of enterprise, theoretical virtues like explanatory power, predictive accuracy, empirical adequacy, coherence with working theory, broad applicability, fruitfulness for further inquiry, and simplicity are essential. It is not my purpose to denigrate this literature. Like many philosophers, I have learned much by reading it and, in some cases, responding to it.

My claim is that if we were to look at philosophy of religion historically, we would find that evaluating the cogency of arguments is only one part of a much wider enterprise. For some thinkers, it is not even the most important part. Consider a list of great thinkers from the past. (In the interest of simplicity, I will confine the list to people in the monotheistic tradition):

Plato, Euthyphro
Augustine, The City of God
Alfarabi, On the Perfect State
Avicenna, The Book of Healing
Anselm, Proslogion
Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed
Aquinas, Summa Theologica
Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise
Hume, Dialogues on Natural Religion
Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
James, Varieties of Religious Experience
Buber, I and Thou

In looking at this list, several things become clear. First, not everyone regarded proofs for the existence of God as critical to the practice of religion. Kant thought the traditional forms of this argument were invalid. Kierkegaard thought they were silly. Buber did not even bother to mention them. Second and closely related, not all of these thinkers thought philosophy of religion was a theoretical enterprise whose methods were comparable to those in science or metaphysics. Spinoza argued that the Bible was concerned with behavior not the acceptance of theory. Kant protested against the idea that religion should work like physics or geometry. Kierkegaard would have said that not only do the theoretical virtues listed above not tell us anything important about religion, they distort its true character. James said that the part of mental life that rational methods can account for is relatively superficial.

Third if we look at the works listed above, we will see that demonstration is only one of several genres that the thinkers employ. While many of the works contain demonstrations, like Aquinas’ Five Ways, they are usually part of a much wider context. The medieval thinkers typically buttressed their demonstrations with commentary or citations from the sacred literature. Although quite different in their views of religion, Spinoza and Kierkegaard offered extended commentaries on biblical passages. Plato and Hume wrote dialogues. Buber practiced what might best be described as religious phenomenology. Maimonides’ Guide is a letter written to an advanced student who reached a personal crisis. Augustine engaged in historical commentary. James was a psychologist.

In view of this diversity, it is impossible to identify a single method or set of virtues that defines “excellent” philosophy of religion. For those interested in commentary, the relevant virtues might have more in common with literary criticism than with predictive accuracy, empirical adequacy, coherence with working theory, or simplicity. For the religious phenomenologist, the key virtue is authenticity to lived experience, from which I conclude that it is difficult if not impossible to do this kind of philosophy if you are an outsider. How can you describe what it is like to be in the presence of the divine if you don’t believe in it? Much the same is true of mystical experience. Although great philosophers in their own right, Russell or Quine are hardly the people I would consult to find out what such experience is like.

Finally what about that side of philosophy of religion that is unabashedly speculative? What do we say about thinkers who ask questions like “What would life be like in a timeless realm?” or “What would it mean to live in a redeemed world?” or “Can there be such a thing as hell?” or even “Can a perfect being experience emotion?” These questions are perfectly legitimate. To answer them, we have to go well beyond the analysis of arguments. This type of inquiry requires ability to imagine or think about realities unlike anything given in every day experience. I realize that in today’s environment, “speculation” may be a dirty word for some philosophers. But if physicists can speculate about alternative universes (a claim for which empirical confirmation or disconfirmation is impossible), why can philosophers not speculate about alternative realities as well?

In a nutshell, I am calling for diversity. As I see it, religion tries to acquaint us with the absolute. The question is: How do you characterize the absolute? With metaphysical categories? Moral categories? In terms of love or personality? Or, is it rather the case that the absolute cannot be characterized at all? One is, of course, free to argue that religion gets things wrong because there is nothing in the world or in human experience that is absolute in the relevant sense. Nonetheless if we are going to teach and come to terms with the past masters of philosophy of religion, we will have to open our minds to a range of methods, talents, and worldviews. While the analysis of arguments is a time-tested method, we are kidding ourselves if we think that other methods and attendant virtues do not have an important role to play.

Hasskei M. Majeed on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Taken with Lumia Selfie

Hasskei M. Majeed is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Ghana. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In the philosophical study of religion, I distinguish between two sets of cardinal values: that is, those that are relative to the practice of philosophy itself and those that are in connection with the object of philosophical attention.

The principles that are relative to the practice of philosophy, and for that matter philosophy of religion, are to be found in the second order activity of philosophizing. They are the general principles used by philosophers in their assessment of ideas of all kinds. They include coherence, consistency and other logical tools which would be appropriate for the evaluation of beliefs, evidences for those beliefs, and between beliefs and actions that are alleged to be informed by those beliefs.

In terms of the object of philosophical inquiry, it behooves philosophers of religion to understand and present properly the religion they seek to study, and doing so ought to entail the observance of such key values as fairness and objectivity which are well known to philosophers of religion. The challenge now is spelling out what it takes to be, say, fair. I will provide an answer via negativa by suggesting two cases of what fairness does not mean.

(i) Even if we agree that we ought to respect the collective emotions of the practitioners of any religion—as in their right to feel that their religion is true—we should not be compelled to accept the often held view that we will be fair and right in our analyses of their religious beliefs, values and practices if we cultivate our own emotions to feel like the practitioners of the religion. In upholding this view, we would, first, be presuming wrongly that everyone must know how to become religious. And this might neither be fair to nor right about atheists and agnostics who are philosophers of religion. Secondly, we would be giving the false impression that we have sufficient knowledge of what to do in our attempt to wear the emotional garments of the practitioner. But human experience and the changing phases of religion or, at least, of the practice of religion makes this terribly difficult. How can we tell, for example, what it is for a person to be Catholic today if doing so requires knowledge of the person’s feeling toward every topical issue of religious concern? How easy would it be to know what to feel if one was a Catholic in Ireland and presented with an opportunity to vote against the prohibition of solicited abortion? While it is difficult to deny that some who see themselves as Catholics could reject this prohibition, it is part of the criteria for proper understanding of religions, according to the wrong conception of the principle of fairness, to establish what the Catholic feeling in Ireland is toward solicited abortion.

(ii) While maintaining a commitment to be fair, this should not be exhibited only in the conclusions we draw on specific topics in religion and on specific aspects of individual religions. In addition, the commitment should not fail to reflect in our references to religions themselves which, ideally, are supposed to be treated equally. Wole Soyinka’s call for equal treatment of all religions is apposite. It implies that all religions earn their names even though it could be expected that some would provide stronger philosophical bases for specific beliefs, values or practices than others. In the spirit of this observation, dedication to the principle of fairness should repel, for instance, the tendency to write the first letters of Christianity and Islam with capital letters while writing the name of the indigenous religion of Africans, as is evident in existing literature on African religion, as “traditional African religion.” This tendency has serious historical and epistemic ramifications that ought not to be generated in the first place by fair-minded thinkers.

In intercultural and comparative study of religions, there are different dynamics when it comes to colonized countries, including those in Africa. Ali Mazrui correctly identifies the “triple heritage” as a basic reality of the African life. In addition to this fact, there is the tension of conducting accurate philosophical analysis of Traditional African religion and yet staying clear of the influence of religious perspectives that derive from non-African (especially, Christian and Islamic) thought. These religions, especially the former, are perceived as foreign and vehicles of colonial domination. As a result, many contemporary African philosophers are quick to indicate which ideas in African religious thought are similar to those expressed by Europeans and thereby conclude that the authors of those ideas are presenting colonial relics as authentic African ideas. This has led to the phenomenon of “eurojection”, the undue rejection of ideas apparently shared by European thinkers. What Kwasi Wiredu cautions against, in this regard, is “undue” European or Western or foreign influence on African philosophical thought; but this ultimately implies that some minimal level of influence is permissible. Another problem about eurojection is, perhaps, the unintended neglect of the historical antecedence of Ancient Egyptian philosophy—and by this, ancient African religious thought—which in some ways undergird some of the ideas that are today linked to Europe. What we need to take from the foregoing is that while there is the non-negotiable demand to avoid uncritical assimilation of African religious ideas into European frameworks and the imposition of European views on African philosophical thought, more needs to be done on the establishment of the exactitude of ideas seemingly shared in the two religious systems. Therefore, care must be taken in the labeling and subsequent rejection of such ideas in African philosophico-religious thought.

Anat Biletzki on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Anat Biletzki is the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Philosophy at Quinnipiac University. We invited her to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

On pain of repetition – of so many things that have already been written in this conversation – I accept as a given that the philosophy of religion answers to one’s definition of “philosophy” and “religion.” On both podia we do not all agree; and the discussions concerning “What is philosophy?” and “What is religion?” clearly impact our determination of norms and values that guide both. In fact, I venture that one’s conceptions of philosophy – call them one’s metaphilosophy – cannot but include, indeed be constituted by, one’s ideas of the normative aspects of philosophy. (And if one believes that philosophy is, or can be, predicated on empirical, descriptive, experiential theories, why even then that metaphilosophy harbors value-laden discriminations and pronouncements.) After a general metaphilosophical step has been taken decisively, the philosophy of religion, like the philosophy of science or the philosophy of language or the philosophy of art etc., posits the question that is, I dare say, its first question – “What is religion?” Other questions in the philosophy of religion then follow naturally and copiously.

That is where my metaphilosophy begins: with questioning. Philosophy is, for me, not a theory or a medley of theories, neither metaphysical, nor epistemic, nor of ethics or aesthetics. It is – or should be – rather an activity of questioning. Not all questions, however, are philosophical questions and not all methods of questioning are philosophical methods. Philosophical questions are conceptual questions and the methods of posing them are rational and analytic. In other words, they involve us in critique. Philosophy, then, is the rational, analytic, critical posing of conceptual questions. That is not to say that one need not scavenge the panoply of answers that have been given throughout history to these same questions while posing them – again and again and again. Neither is it to say that one should desist from empirical data in order to ask, ask again, ask better. Human experience, be it religious or, for that matter linguistic or aesthetic, is, itself, a wellspring of input for our questioning. In other words, philosophy and philosophical questioning need not be, must not be, an abstract, theoretical game of words that is disconnected from reality. Especially not in the philosophy of religion.

So the philosophy of religion is entrusted with investigating the question “What is religion?” and must do so, i.e., ask the question, as a rational, analytic, and critical enterprise, even if religion, its practice, and the beliefs of its practitioners are perceived by some to be irrational and lacking a critical bent. The same modes of rationality, analysis, and critique accompany further questions about further concepts – God, holiness, redemption, idolatry, creation, eternal life, sacrifice – that arise in the philosophy of religion: What, if anything, can we know about God? If God is all good, all knowing, and all powerful, then why does evil exist? What is the relationship between faith and reason? Can we rationally justify our religious beliefs/practices? What do religious beliefs refer to? Does the fact of great religious diversity mean anything for any particular religion or religious person? What is the relationship between religion and morality? What is the relationship between religion and science? Why do we have religion? What is it to be religious?

These norms – conceptuality, rationality, criticality, and analyticity – of how to deal with the (questions of the) philosophy of religion should be followed by others, that derive from the activity of questioning itself: openness to unexpected questions, toleration of odd suggestions of answers, patience with the stubbornness of dogma. In the case of religion, as opposed to, for example, philosophy of language or philosophy of mind, these values of acceptance towards the startling otherness of other thinkers are more pronounced and indispensable. This evidently has to do with the crucial place of religion in human experience, human life, and – I dare say – human politics. Perhaps it also has to do with how we teach, rather than write or research, the philosophy of religion.

All the above pertains to norms and values that we cherish and pursue in the philosophy of religion. But our question referred to excellent philosophy of religion. And it is here that we arrive at a level of engagement which must be aspired to when we acknowledge the context-dependency of doing current philosophy of religion. The contemporary “behavior” of religion, the present-day place of philosophy in the academy, and the relation between the two advocate additional standards of inquiry if we are to reach such excellence. Asking questions about religion in the philosophical arena must recognize the real-life workings of religion -existential, institutional, political – as they occur today; it must, likewise, be aware of intellectual and social changes that now permeate our philosophical endeavors. I only have time to mention three such desiderata, three necessary frameworks, without which the philosophy of religion in the 21st century would be sorely lacking; with them it can aim for excellence.

Of the questions listed above, and of many others, one can say that they are not properly philosophical. Instead of being metaphysical, they may be construed as scientific; instead of dealing with epistemology, they are “merely” psychological; instead of addressing theology, they turn to politics. But it should be obvious, in the heyday of interdisciplinarity, that the ivory-towered conceptual, theoretical exclusiveness that is sometimes still mistakenly identified with philosophy has given way to a multi-perspectival cognizance of the deep significance of religious practices. That means involving in our study, for example, the Marxian critique of religion even though it carries the label of “political thought.” That entails engaging with Freud’s assault on religion although it lives in the halls of psychology. Sociological and anthropological renditions of the religious life (Geertz, but also Frazer) are fertile fields upon which to sow even more questions about religion. The philosophy of religion, even while analyzing the classical, logically astute, clearly conceptual contributions of great dead philosophers, cannot, in these interconnected intellectual times, ignore fruitful observations and interpretations from any and all persuasions.

The borders between philosophy and other disciplines have been trespassed, and wisely so. (Perhaps that should be the fate of all borders.) Similarly, the global reach of our discoveries and discussions has now made religions that are not of Western provenance more familiar and within reach. But the values which have reigned in traditional philosophy of religion have been centered on the Abrahamic religions with a sometime nod to some Eastern religions (mostly Buddhism and Confucianism). “Religions of the World” must become more than simply a descriptive name of a university class. Current attentiveness to the diversity of religions populating the world must result in a transformation of how we formulate, investigate, and adjudicate questions and their conceivable answers in the philosophy of religion. Indeed, opening up to the variety of systems of belief and concurrent practices around the world can even bring to a change in our definition(s) of “religion,” thereby radically altering the way we ask and try to answer the question “What is religion?”.

“Interdisciplinarity” and “diversity” are indeed current buzzwords; nevertheless, they should carry immense normative weight in the philosophy of religion. Similarly popular, but no less essential and perhaps even more vital here, is the axiom of gender. It is in religion that one can unambiguously ascertain the gendered history of humankind. Regrettably, it is in the philosophy of religion that one can still see the continuing gendered imbalance that rules its exercise. (I do not here refer to the numerical or even authoritative imbalance between men and women philosophers of religions, though that, too, is a normative problem.) Questions about the language of religion, which always talks of a masculine God are by now commonplace, but usually posed with a complacent smirk. Inquiries into the automatically authoritative role of men in the institutions of religion have become routine as well and look to institutional solutions. But it is in the philosophy of religion, that is, in the profound epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical analysis and critique of religion that questions of gender must be formulated. Without taking into account the work by (usually women) philosophers who interrogate the meaning of religious texts and practices from a perspective that problematizes their gender bias, the philosophy of religion in these times may be irrelevant and barren.

A final postscript: the three areas of normativity, with their associated values – interdisciplinarity, diversity, and gender – that I have adjoined to excellent philosophy of religion run the risk of being grasped as politically oriented. But if the personal is political, then the religious is manifestly political.

Jason Marsh on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Jason Marsh is Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

It is hard to imagine that there is a single story to tell about what norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion. And while I bet that philosophers of religion could reach quite a bit of agreement on the question, instead of trying to give a comprehensive list of virtues, I will simply consider one form of excellence that currently has my attention. The excellence I have in mind is an almost ‘unnatural’ degree of intellectual honesty. This can take different forms. For instance, while it is relatively natural to acknowledge when one doesn’t know something, some go further by writing entire articles that evidentially run against their religious beliefs.

One example in philosophy of religion comes from Dan Moller. After writing an elaborate argument against design, he concludes with the following sentences:

. . . As a theist I don’t particularly welcome [my argument’s] existence. But it does look like evidence that life on earth wasn’t ushered onto the stage ‘by hand.’

Before reaching the end of his paper, or even after just reading his title “A Simple Argument Against Design”, many might (mistakenly) assume that Moller is an atheist. That is because few philosophers devote entire papers to formulating even just one line of evidence against their most important beliefs. There is opportunity for more excellence here.

Another form of intellectual honesty arises when people acknowledge when they don’t base their beliefs on the evidence, in the inferential sense. For instance, in a paper called “Giving Dualism its Due”, William Lycan says the following about his unwavering commitment to materialism.

I have been a materialist about the mind for forty years, since first I considered the mindbody issue . . . And like many other materialists, I have often quickly cited standard objections to dualism that are widely taken to be fatal—notoriously the dreaded Interaction Problem… Being a philosopher, of course I would like to think that my stance is rational, held not just instinctively and scientistically and in the mainstream but because the arguments do indeed favor materialism over dualism. But I do not think that, though I used to. My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it: though the arguments for dualism do (indeed) fail, so do the arguments for materialism. And the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing . . . My purpose in this paper is to hold my own feet to the fire and admit that I do not proportion my belief to the evidence.

Passages like those from Moller and Lycan are music to my ears. They also make me want to think harder about my own beliefs. And while I think this kind of thing would lose impact if done in every article, I do think more of it would be a good thing. These virtues seem to connect up to the old Socratic ideal of following (or seeking to follow) the evidence where it leads. This ideal is hard. And it can seem to conflict with at least some faith traditions, whose values can include faithfulness, trust, and even submission of intellect to the divine. But when I see Moller make the admission that he does, I don’t get the feeling that he is being unfaithful. And I suspect that practitioners of many religious traditions might agree. Similarly, when I see Lycan’s admission, I just think he is really human. We all fail to follow the evidence in some domain or another, but it takes guts to admit where.

Now I realize that ‘evidence’ needn’t be argumentative or inferential: it arguably encompasses testimony and experience as well. But my point applies on this view, too. On occasion, philosophers of religion acknowledge ‘experiential evidence’ that shook them to the core—as a graduate student I was once in at a dinner with some leading atheistic philosophers of religion, and their testimony about their religious experiences was fascinating. I think more non-believers, to use that expression, could acknowledge if they have had religious experiences and whether it was possible to doubt during their occurrence. I also think more believers would do well to talk about possible irreligious experiences they have had. Without turning into an AA style club, maybe we could get over a bit of the common embarrassment about this kind of thing.

To use a different example, in a lecture called “The Elsewhere, Elsewhen Objection to Religious Belief”, Tomas Bogardus opens with a story about his upbringing. He had asked his grandmother why she raised his mom Lutheran rather than Catholic, given relevant Catholic family history. She replied that when his mother was young, the Lutheran church happened to be the nearest church in their Chicago neighbourhood. Bogardus goes on to describe how this story of happenstance (he could very easily have had different religious beliefs) induced notable epistemic vertigo. Although he is not persuaded by the inferential version of the challenge, the experience alone might have epistemic force.

My final version of intellectual honesty concerns axiology and involves acknowledging something of value that cannot be realized on one’s current metaphysics. Michael Tooley, who spends much of his time arguing against the claim that God exists, has noted that he hopes that God exists, and that things would be better if God exists—if the world were different than he thinks it is. This got my attention. For well-known atheists, like Richard Dawkins, will often say things to the effect that life permits at least as much grandeur on a secular version of Darwin’s worldview as it does on Paley’s view. But Tooley implies that this is a sham. I think his pro-theistic atheism is interesting. Few seem to lament in any clear way that the other side, if true, might have more value to offer.

Finally, Eleonore Stump and other traditional Christian, Islamic, and Jewish theists occasionally express the hope that everyone will eventually enjoy salvation, even if their commitment to orthodoxy rules out believing that they will. Marilyn McCord Adams also, I believe, expressed a similar desire before becoming a universalist. That, in some ways, is more virtuous than anything evidential.

Thomas Metcalf on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Thomas Metcalf is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Spring Hill College. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Respect in the Philosophy of Religion

Excellent philosophy of religion requires a variety of intellectual and character virtues and personal values. However, in this post, I would like to focus on a set of values or virtues that can be collected under the general type, ‘respect.’ I think there are three sorts of respect that are required for excellent philosophy of religion.

To begin with, part of what drew me to the philosophy of religion is that the subfield influences and informs most-or-all of the other subfields of philosophy. If we learned that theism is true, and especially if we learned that such a maximal theism as Christian Anselmianism is true, then that would likely resolve a host of other philosophical questions. We would arguably have learned of the falsity of materialism and naturalism, the truth of ethical realism (and perhaps of several first-order ethical principles), and the possibility of surviving the death of one’s body. Perhaps we would also have learned that laws of nature are non-Humean, that human beings have libertarian free will, and that platonism is true.

Therefore, I think that we as philosophers ought to respect how far-reaching and influential the debates in the philosophy of religion are. Of course, I haven’t even said anything about all the scientific questions that theism would resolve as well. Arguably, philosophical theism would entail that the universe had a beginning in time. It might even entail that the Many-Worlds or Bohmian interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. To establish the truth of a religion might, at one stroke, resolve many of the most-interesting debates in philosophy and science.

A second sort of respect required by excellent philosophy of religion is respect for the individual believers and nonbelievers, in a way that is different from a general obligation of respect for one’s interlocutors. It’s easy for most philosophical-debates to remain very academic and sterile, perhaps to a fault: I might baldly say, to an error-theorist’s face, that I think the error theory is obviously false, or I might, without much deference or apology, cheerfully inform a Quinean that Quine’s only useful contribution to philosophy is the Quine-corners. According to the norms of our field, this sort of remark doesn’t have to constitute disrespect. But questions in the philosophy of religion can be extremely momentous and personal. Religious believers sometimes build their entire lives around their religion—and perhaps you can think of a few nonbelievers who seem to build their entire lives around their nonbelief, or at least for whom atheism or agnosticism is central to their worldviews. For some people, life might lose all meaning if the world turned out to be materialistic, or it might be disorienting or even devastating to learn that God exists. And nearly everyone encounters academic philosophy long after they’ve encountered deep religious-questions, such as about the existence of God and the possibility of life after death. Philosophy of religion can be very personal in a way that most other subfields aren’t, and it can be deeply involved in a person’s intellectual development, even from a young age.

In turn, I think we must offer a sort of respect to our interlocutors in the philosophy of religion that we don’t need to care as much about in other debates. To insult a philosophical position may be tactless or inadvisable, but it’s relatively innocuous, except when it might constitute insulting someone’s identity and worldview. Theist philosophers, especially, are likely to view theism as more than just an interesting philosophical thesis to be debated.

Third and finally, some religions assert the interesting thesis that one is morally obligated to believe in the religion. One might sin by having a sort of intellectual pride in rejecting theism without giving it a fair hearing. In contrast, the existence of platonic forms normally does not oblige one to believe in platonic forms. While it might be an intellectual vice to dismiss various positions in epistemology, metaphysics, or aesthetics without a fair hearing, it’s not obviously a moral vice.

Yet at least if theism is true, there may be a moral obligation of respect to give theism a fair hearing. Again, this seems to simply follow from the thesis that one is morally obligated to believe in God. Of course, atheists and some theists are likely to dispute this thesis, but it’s a live possibility in the philosophy of religion, where analogues aren’t very plausible in other subfields of philosophy. Deflationism about truth, and four-dimensionalism about time, will never notice whether I believe in them. Thus, we may morally owe theism a kind of intellectual respect that isn’t so important in other areas of philosophy.

In sum, I hold that excellent philosophy of religion requires a set of values that all qualify as forms of respect: respect for the philosophical pervasiveness and importance of the philosophy of religion; respect for individual believers and nonbelievers and their emotional and spiritual lives; and respect for the possibility that God might exist and one might therefore be morally required to offer theism intellectual respect as well.

Robert McKim on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Robert McKim is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Religion at the University of Illinois. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

On Excellence in Philosophy of Religion

It seems to me that what is required for excellence on the part of an individual philosopher of religion (“individual excellence”) is somewhat different from what is required for excellence in the entire field of philosophy of religion (“disciplinary excellence,” as I shall call it) though there are interesting connections between the two.

Individual excellence
is, in part at least, easy to outline. It includes thinking systematically, deeply, and with care about philosophical issues, questions, and conundrums raised by religion, and being mindful of relevant views and concepts that others have developed and of the history of relevant debates and controversies.

The work of philosophers of religion whose projects are very narrow in focus is sometimes excellent. Such work might focus on the merits of particular arguments or on the interpretation of particular concepts. Or it might be limited to issues that are unique to a particular religion.

And why shouldn’t philosophers of religion focus on arguments or concepts that are of particular interest to them, however limited in scope they may be? Why shouldn’t they dig deeply into their own religious perspective, or the perspective with which they are most familiar, or that is of most interest or most importance to them, or that is the subject of discussion in the academic and intellectual circles in which they move, using the best tools available? Thus their aim might be to probe the best way to articulate some of the ideas associated with their perspective or to provide philosophical arguments in its defense.

Whether or not reason is the slave of the passions, in the case of philosophy of religion – and indeed in many other fields in philosophy – reason functions to a considerable extent as the willing accomplice of prior commitments. People have views and those views seem to them to be correct. And philosophers have a set of tools for the clarification, analysis, and defense of their views. Why shouldn’t philosophers of religion deploy such tools with respect to their own views or the views they find most interesting?

Disciplinary excellence certainly involves encouraging and fostering individual excellence. It also involves fairly widespread distribution of individual excellence among its practitioners. However, it could be that everyone who plies the trade conducts themselves in an excellent fashion and yet the field as a whole fails to be excellent in an important respect.

This is because disciplinary excellence has a distinctive aspect – one that is not a feature of individual excellence though, I suggest, it has implications for individual excellence. In particular, as many scholars have argued in recent decades, the field as a whole should not be narrow in focus. By now there may even be a consensus to this effect among people who reflect about these matters; certainly the voices calling for this are getting louder, and for good reason.

Disciplinary excellence requires attending to the variety of forms that religion has assumed, and even forms it could assume. It requires recognition that one religion’s beliefs, claims, ideas, and so on are no more deserving of exploration or clarification or analysis, or in general of philosophical reflection in all of its aspects, than those of other religions.

Hence when we consider the field as a whole, and how it conducts itself, it does not make sense to think that, say, the Buddhist idea of a relational self is more worthy of reflection than the Islamic idea of prophethood, or vice versa. Nor does it make sense to think that the Navajo concept of the earth as our mother is more worthy of reflection than the Christian concept of the incarnation, or vice versa. The field as a whole should be on the side of inclusion and broad-ranging exploration. It should endeavor to contribute to deeper thinking across many religious traditions, taking a careful analytical approach to all manner of concepts here, there, and yonder across the religious landscape.

Philosophy of religion that is broader in scope, taking religious phenomena of all sorts within its purview, would be more useful, providing more people with ways to deepen and enrich their thinking. It would also be more relevant to the present moment in which people all over the world are plunged into ever-increasing connections with others from other religious traditions, and information about many religions is more available than ever. Moreover, given the variety of religions, the range and scope of their claims, and the sheer abundance of their ideas, a broader philosophy of religion will be more interesting than philosophical reflection that is limited to a single tradition. It is therefore likely to receive more attention from non-specialists. To sum up, a broader philosophy of religion would be more relevant, more useful, and more interesting.

Consider some parallels. It would be absurd for anthropology of religion to confine itself to, say, African religions. And it would be equally absurd for reflection about contemporary democratic institutions in the field of political science to limit itself to, say, the current scene in Europe. The same applies to philosophy of religion. Academic fields and subfields, and the directions they take, are the collective responsibility of those who engage in them, and this includes philosophy of religion.

However, the breadth that is characteristic of disciplinary excellence may not reasonably be expected from individual scholars though there certainly have been pioneers who have made innovative moves in this regard, and I am pretty sure there will be more. We are very limited beings who are prone to bias and partiality. More important, when deciding what to think about religious matters, probably there is more relevant evidence that needs to be taken account of than individuals are capable of taking account of.

On the other hand, once an individual appreciates the need for the field to be excellent in the way suggested, then they may wish to make it part of their task to promote excellence in the field even if their own work remains relatively limited in scope. And even, say, the interpretation of concepts that are unique to one religion may be enriched by exposure to similar or related concepts of others. In fine, individual excellence can be enhanced by being mindful of a particular aspect of disciplinary excellence.

For this reason some training in the general area of the academic study of religion – and in particular the broad understanding of the religious experience of humanity that this can provide – probably will be helpful to most and maybe all philosophers of religion. Likewise the academic study of religion, and those who engage in it, probably would benefit from a broader philosophy of religion.

Bryan Rennie on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Bryan Rennie is Professor of Religion at Westminster College. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Many norms and values have potential to define excellent philosophy of religion. A great deal depends on the priorities of the particular scholar. For me, one of the foremost, and one of the most often overlooked, is simplicity. The description and analysis of as-yet ill-defined behaviors such as the religious all too easily becomes baroquely complex. More than just avoiding the unnecessary multiplication of theoretical entities good philosophizing should begin from simple and secure foundations. In this instance, the simple approach is first to establish the norms and values of good philosophy before complicating the issue by the application of that philosophy to a complex and contentious class like religion.

It is common knowledge that philosophy as we know it originated with the pre-Socratics in Ionian Greece and found exemplary form with Socrates in Periclean Athens. That form relies on sound argumentation. Socrates’ insight may be difficult for us to appreciate in hindsight. The Socratic elenchus leads to what must have been, in the fifth century B.C.E., dramatically counter-intuitive: knowledge of the truth does not come from people of wisdom and power. It does not come from the gods or from oracles. Instead, it comes from words, properly arranged in sound arguments. This must have seemed like sheerest magic, which accounts for the tragically fatal suspicion in which Socrates was held and the accusation of “making the weaker argument stronger” (Plato, Apology 19b). What he demonstrated was both that when even true premises are wrongly related, conclusions apparently drawn from them may be false, but also, alternatively, that when true premises are arranged in valid relations they entail a necessarily true conclusion. Thus, while words alone can lead to false claims, they can, in the right circumstances, yield genuine new knowledge. Surely, words alone—it must have seemed—can be relied upon to show nothing more than the creative skill of the speaker. Surely, while observation can reveal knowledge concerning empirical objects, knowledge of unobservables must come from some other source; from the sage, the oracle, the gods, or authoritative texts recording pre-existing gnosis. Not so, says Socrates. Knowledge of unobservables can be derived from properly arranged linguistic representations—no matter their source.

This is the defining feature of philosophy as a discipline. As Bertrand Russell said, “Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge” (Problems of Philosophy, 154). It does not, however, do so by means of empirical observation, but seeks to uncover truths implicate in expressions of extant knowledge. Then, “as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science” (ibid.).

Socrates’ insight was formalized in Aristotelian logic, lost and found by the European academies, and led, infamously, to the various abuses of Mediaeval Theology. As the British historian of science, James Hannam says of the 14th century, “Students had logical constructions called syllogisms hammered into them until they could repeat them by heart” (The Genesis of Science, 151). So confident did European scholars become of syllogistic logic that they forgot its greatest stricture: in order to work, its premises must be true. Sensitivity to the form of valid argumentation cannot replace rigor in ascertaining the truth of all premises therein employed, truth ascertained by either empirical observation or by prior argumentation. The genealogies of almost all truths contain elements of both.

Where do these observations take us in philosophy of religion? First, we must recognize that any scholar attempting to reach conclusions based on anything other than direct observation and concerning anything other than observable data is doing philosophy. (That is one good reason is why most people who have a terminal degree in almost any discipline have a Philosophiae Doctoralis.) Anyone who makes claims about the origin or nature of religion is doing philosophy of religion since religion is not an observable entity but a taxonomic classification by which empirical observations can be organized. Since such scholars are doing philosophy of religion (whether they admit it or not) then it behooves them to do it right. This involves ensuring the truth of claims assumed as the premises.

Thereafter it is equally important that arguments constructed from corroborated truths are valid: Do our premises really entail our conclusions? Do we commit fallacies of reasoning such as irrelevant premises, perhaps invoking extensive knowledge of the evidence as itself support for the truth of conclusions? Charles Sanders Peirce in his 1877 essay “The Fixation of Belief” (Popular Science Monthly: 1-15, widely available online) with characteristic pragmatism uses the expression, “the fixation of belief,” to refer to the assertion of any claim. Such “fixation” may be permanent or it may be short-lived, but when we posit a conclusion with sincerity our doubts are satisfied and our belief fixed. Peirce describes four methods for the fixation of belief: tenacity, the a priori, authority, and the scientific method. Only the last is reliable, the first three being untrustworthy, leading to only temporary fixation of belief because they lack “any distinction of a right and a wrong way.” Peirce does not detail what “the scientific method” is, although he does say that “each chief step in science has been a lesson in logic.” Most importantly, he tells us what the “scientific” method is not. It does not propose conclusions based on resolve, on personal taste, or on the authority of their source. These are all fallacies of relevance, symptomatic of which is the strategy of beginning research with a single hypothesis and inspecting the data to see what can be used to corroborate that hypothesis. Instead the greatest possible spread of data must be admitted, and alternative hypotheses entertained so as to ascertain which of them is best corroborated by the greatest number of well-reasoned arguments.

Excellent philosophy of religion, then, requires the rigorous corroboration of assumed premises, that is, extensive and reliable knowledge of the history of religions. It requires a knowledge of logic, understood as the methods and principles distinguishing correct from incorrect argumentation. It requires scrupulous avoidance of fallacious reasoning, especially the retention of conclusions that have not been reached by sound argumentation but are held because of unwillingness to change or ignorance of viable alternatives, because of personal predilection, or because of deference to authority (one’s own or someone else’s). These fallacies have been prevalent in the philosophy of religion before now to the extent that the discipline became de facto theology (even “philosophical” theology). It is crucial, not only that we address that failure, but also that we avoid such fallacious reasoning in the general history of religion, which is in no wise immune from it because of its avowed secularity.

Carl Raschke on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Identifying Criteria of “Excellence” for a Philosophy of Religion of the Future

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – and now we near the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century – the question of what constitutes “excellence” in the philosophy of religion has always been intertwined with the fashions and protocols that rise and fall episodically in the enterprise of philosophy itself. Different approaches to what historically has been called “philosophy” routinely dictate cognate strategies for positioning how we do philosophy. At the same time, each of these approaches conditions what precisely we mean by “philosophy of religion.”

The term “philosophy of religion” itself is a product of the nineteenth century. Hegel in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion was the first to give it currency. Prior to Hegel, and for much of the modern period itself, the question of the “religious” was inextricably intertwined with theological issues pertinent to philosophy itself. From Descartes’ efforts in the Meditations to justify the certitude of the cogito through an appeal to the goodness of God to Kant’s quest for a “religion within the limits of reason alone”, the sorts of matters that preoccupied pre-Hegelian philosophy might be better characterized as concerns for a philosophical theology rather than what later came to be known as “philosophy of religion”. Of course, we still continue to ply these concerns (for example, the classical arguments for the existence of God) under the rubric of contemporary philosophy of religion.

Hegel, however, was the first to posit “religion” in the generic sense as a distinctive topic area for philosophical reflection. As one can easily deduce from his Lectures, he would not have had the appropriate context to frame the problem of religion in the manner he accomplished apart from the beginnings of what later would be called the “history of religions” movement in German Romanticism in the early decades of the nineteenth century. As knowledge among Western scholars concerning the varieties, gradations, and intricacies of human religiosity increased exponentially later in the century, in no small part due to European colonial expansion and the rise of anthropology as a distinctive field of inquiry, the question of religion became less one of an epistemological evaluation of doctrine and belief and increasingly an effort to develop a methodology for making sense out of what religious adherents write and say as well as how they behave on a day-to-day basis. What figures such as Rudolf Otto, Willliam Brede Kristiansen, and Gerardus van der Leeuw characterized as a “phenomenology” of religion took its place alongside more traditional examinations of what were essentially theistic claims about God, the world, and the presumed supernatural order of things.

By the mid-twentieth century the hegemony and prestige of the natural sciences fostered a preoccupation with the degree to which religious convictions and concerns could be warranted by the fundamental canons of scientific rationality. The fashions in Anglo-American philosophy known as “logical positivism” and “linguistic analysis” (the latter deriving largely from the jottings and lectures of the Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) turned the philosophy of religion for a season into an exercise in either repudiating religious language as “nonsensical” or trying to making it into something other than what it really was. The impact of French post-structuralism in the 1970s and 1980s, especially with the celebrity status of Jacques Derrida across the spectrum of the humanities, together with new translations of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, precipitated the so-called “Continental turn” in philosophy of religion, which unsurprisingly gave birth to its own “theological turn” toward the end of the millennium.

The basic point is that trends in philosophy as a whole invariably set the standard for the criteria we employ to chart key agendas for the philosophy of religion specifically. Thus in order to bring the theme of this discussion – namely, what “norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion” – we have to ask ourselves what comparable measures or models shape what might be called “excellent philosophy” overall? In many respects philosophy itself, particularly in the Anglophone world, is more in doubt about itself than ever before. Growing social and political pressures and critiques from other disciplines and constituencies have rendered it impossible for philosophy to continue to couch its issues and go about attempting to resolve them in the somewhat self-congratulatory and insular manner that typified the field through much of the last century.

Burgeoning investigative terrains in cognitive and neuropsychology, for instance, have compelled researchers in the “philosophy of mind” – the discipline’s perennial and staple subspecialty – to ask entirely new questions than they have been accustomed to. Postcolonial literature, gender studies, ethnic studies, and such relatively fledgling subject interests as critical race theory have forced philosophy, even if extremely reluctantly, to reflect on, while coming to terms with, its own unacknowledged procedural biases, privileges, and epistemic blind spots in what are taken for granted as irreducible as well as inviolable norms of formalized “rationality”. The same apparatus of critical-theoretical assessment, which philosophy itself can no longer resist, applies straightaway to the philosophy of religion. The multifarious and increasingly interdisciplinary praxis that has come to be known as critical theory (far outpacing what the word signified a generation ago with its almost exclusive connotations of the output of the Frankfurt School) is perhaps the benchmark for much cutting-edge philosophy of religion today.

Figures such as Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, Cornel West, Giorgio Agamben, Achille Mbembe, or Judith Butler, who would never have been considered luminaries in either philosophy, or philosophy of religion, as late as the early 1990s, are now cited almost as frequently as Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, or Nietzsche. We are witnessing what might be termed the critical theoreticization of the philosophy of religion, and given the globalized and intercultural academic environment in which we are all now embedded, the swing in this direction is most likely to intensify, not abate.

Delineating “excellence” in the philosophy of religion, therefore, will mean that we have to broaden our range of vision concerning both the nature of “religion” itself and the kind of philosophy that pursues it. What Jacques Derrida identified in the early 1990s as the “return of religion” will not go away. But we are ever searching for more trenchant and complex meanings about religion as it persists in this post-secular age, and only the philosophy of religion, given its mastery of the critical machinery for wide-reaching scrutiny of diverse phenomena it developed two and a half millennia ago to be joined to the human sciences in their empirical sophistication, can really do the job.

We may be closer to what Nietzsche once called the “philosophy of the future” than we care to acknowledge. Similarly, we may also now be right on the cusp of a philosophy of religion of the future, which are just now scrambling to imagine.

Elizabeth Burns on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Elizabeth Burns is Reader in Philosophy of Religion and Programme Director, University of London. We invited her to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Those who teach philosophy of religion, at least in the United Kingdom, are usually required by their institutions to list the aims and learning outcomes for their courses or modules. While some might be tempted to regard this task as an exercise in pointless bureaucracy, perhaps we should, instead, see it as an important first step of any attempt to study philosophy of religion – whether this is an institutional programme or our own personal reading plan. It is, I would suggest, only when we have a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve and how we will know that we have achieved it that we will be in a position to judge what norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion.

So, what are we aiming to achieve when we study philosophy of religion? And in what respects will it make us different? Religion is an internationally important phenomenon; according to the Pew Research Center (2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/), in 2015, 6.2 billion of a world population of 7.3 billion had some kind of religious affiliation. Since, for many of these people, religion is a primary source of personal, social and, perhaps, political values, it is important that as many people as possible have an opportunity to consider whether religious beliefs are rational, or what a rational form of religious belief might look like, and the practical implications – both positive and negative – of religious beliefs. So, important aims of philosophy of religion might be:

i. To facilitate understanding and analysis of our own beliefs about religion and those of others;

ii. To promote beliefs about religion which are both rational and enable the flourishing of sentient beings.

The outcomes of our learning – although, admittedly, difficult to measure – might be assessed by examining the extent to which it leads to the changing or modification of beliefs which contribute to social cohesion and the transformation of individuals and communities.

So what methods should we use in order to achieve our aims and learning outcomes? Broadly speaking, analytic-style philosophy of religion prizes structure, clarity and precision, and proceeds towards its conclusions by means of analysis of step-wise arguments, while continental-style philosophy of religion focuses on ways in which we might change our thinking in order to transform the lives of individuals and communities, despite the inescapable difficulties of human existence.

At least some analytic philosophy of religion seems to lose sight of the aims and intended outcomes of writing and reading a text, however, and gets lost in the complexity and obscurity of arguments, sometimes translated into the symbols of symbolic logic which can be understood only by those with relevant training. The conclusions reached may seem trivial and/or uncertain; perhaps there is a form of the design argument which supports some kind of religious belief, for example, but even this would seem to fall far short of the level of significance and certainty on which someone might base their life and address the difficulties which they will inevitably encounter. Even the degree of precision afforded by the use of symbolic logic leads only to a conclusion which is dependent upon the nature of the values which are given to the symbols before the argument begins.

Those writing continental-style philosophy of religion often have a clearer focus on the practical relevance of their texts, but their relative lack of structure, clarity and precision, and sometimes the sheer length and complexity of their publications, make it hard for any but the most intellectually able and determined readers to identify the ‘message’ which they aim to convey. Sometimes, of course, part of the ‘message’ conveyed by the method is that the matters under discussion are complex and ambiguous and therefore difficult to communicate succinctly, but the reader’s task of discernment and evaluation remains challenging – perhaps too challenging for many who might otherwise have much to gain.

Complexity and obscurity in philosophical writing might sometimes be difficult to avoid in the initial stages of exploring a new philosophical position, as we struggle towards new solutions to complex problems, perhaps trying to say what has never before been said. But structured, clear and precise arguments of the kind valued by analytic-style philosophy of religion can help us to rule out positions which are unlikely to be true, and to maintain or adopt as the basis for our lives beliefs which are more likely to be true.

Part of the way in which we identify positions which should be rejected and choose those on which to base our lives is likely to involve an appeal to their practical implications, however. These are the reasons for belief which we commonly find in continental-style philosophy of religion and are often derived from the findings of other related disciplines such as ethics, psychology, sociology, politics, literature and other forms of art.

Perhaps our best hope of achieving the aims and learning outcomes of philosophy of religion, then, lies in embracing a hybrid-style philosophy of religion such as that proposed by John Cottingham in Philosophy of Religion: Towards a Humane Philosophy of Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), which preserves the positive aspects of analytic-style philosophy of religion but argues that our conclusions about religious belief should also be informed by ‘all the resources of human experience that are relevant to the shaping of a philosophically-rounded worldview’ (176).

In conclusion, then, if the primary aims of philosophy of religion are to enable us to consider the rationality of religious beliefs and their practical implications so that individuals and societies might be transformed for the better, excellent philosophy of religion needs to have the following features:

i. A discernible structure;

ii. Clarity, avoiding uncommon language and technical terms where possible;

iii. Precision;

iv. Brevity, avoiding any unnecessary repetition;

v. Supporting evidence from other relevant disciplines, where applicable.

Philosophy of religion texts which have these features are likely to be accessible not only to professors and some of their students, but also to a much broader human constituency, thereby substantially increasing the beneficial impact of their ideas upon the wellbeing of humankind and other sentient beings.